Radithor, the Radium Cure-All That Killed Its Best Customer

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Radithor came in tiny glass bottles only 2 inches tall. They contained triple-distilled water mixed with small quantities of two radioactive substances.

Imagine being a typical American at the drugstore in the 1920s. What might you be shopping for? You may want to purchase some dry herbs. You know how to make a comfrey poultice to treat bruises and sprains. Perhaps you need rosinweed because your horse is wheezing. 

The local drugstore is where you buy your hair care products, like Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. You also get essential hygiene items here, such as tooth powder.

The pharmacist or an employee greets you when you walk in the door. If you live in a small town, they know you by name. Rows of products are arranged on polished mahogany shelves, behind glass. The walls display colorful advertisements for Coca-Cola and Lucky Strike cigarettes.

Your kids run to the soda fountain and ask the soda jerk to mix them a Coca-Cola and a Cherry Smash. He squirts the proprietary syrups into glasses and then fills them with carbonated water. Maybe today, you let them get a scoop of ice cream or some candy. You stop at the candy counter and look at white-plumed Hershey’s kisses and rainbow swirl lollipops.

Next, you turn to a display of patent medicines. Some of the products you see are:

  • Chamberlain’s cough remedy, which helps with sore throats and bronchitis and is non-narcotic
  • Dr. R. Schiffmann’s Asthmador cigarettes, with stramonium and belladonna but not tobacco
  • Sloan’s liniment, a “counter-irritant” that helps with arthritis pain 

There is also a selection of radium products. Now, these seem exciting. You’ve read stories about experiments with radium that cured blindness and reversed aging in the newspaper. Even your pharmacist recommends it. Indeed, it’s common knowledge that radium has many untapped health benefits.

Your friend just bought a radium water jug, and she says she’s full of energy since she’s been drinking six glasses a day. A jug seemed like a significant investment, though—what if you tried just one bottle of radium water? There were several brands on the shelf. So you pick the one you’ve heard of: Radithor.

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  • Radithor perpetual sunshine promo 1 585d9b58f08574cf70d73636234a7161 1
Bailey marketed Radithor with a booklet describing it as “perpetual sunshine.” On the front page was a sample of radium and instructions to view its rays in a dark room.

The newspaper ad you saw for Radithor read, “Just a tiny bottle of apparently lifeless, colorless and tasteless water is all that the eye can see, or the tongue can detect, yet in this bottle there reposes the greatest therapeutic force known to mankind—radioactivity.” You’ve read that it can treat 160 conditions, everything from arthritis and heart disease to muscular atrophy and sexual decline.

The little glass bottle contains half an ounce of the liquid. You bring it to the register, feeling excited about your purchase.

The Making of Radithor

Radithor was a product of Bailey Radium Laboratories. The company was founded by William J.A. Bailey, a serial entrepreneur. Bailey had been fined numerous times for various types of fraud, including promoting an erectile dysfunction cure, “Las-I-Go for Superb Manhood,” which contained strychnine.

When Bailey created Radithor, he already owned other radioactive product companies, including Associated Radium Chemists, which he opened in 1922. ARC produced Arium radium tablets. However, Radithor was Bailey’s most successful business venture. He sold over 400,000 bottles.

The product’s name was a combination of its two active ingredients. Rad stood for radium. Thor stood for mesothorium, an isotope of radium dissolved in the triple-distilled liquid. Bailey obtained these raw materials from another New Jersey company.

There were other radium waters on the market, but many contained little to no radium. Bailey advertised Radithor as “certified radioactive water,” and he was willing to stand by his guarantee. He advertised a bounty of $1,000 to anyone who could prove it had less than one microcurie of its two radioactive elements.

Radium Water’s Best Customer

In 1927, Eben Byers rode home from a Yale-Harvard football game on a party train. The Yale alumnus was horsing around with his friends and fell out of an upper berth, hurting his arm. When the pain didn’t go away, he sought care from a local physiotherapist, Dr. Charles Moyar.

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In healthier times, Byers was a noted sportsman who enjoyed golf and was popular with women.

The doctor recommended Radithor to help Byers heal. Starting in December of that year, Byers drank about three bottles each day. He kept up this habit for two years. Initially, he felt wonderful and told anyone who would listen that Radithor was the cause of his energy and good health. He gave cases to friends and even fed some to one of his horses. But by 1930, it was clear that something was wrong. Byers had started losing teeth and weight, and he was having headaches and jaw pain. X-rays revealed that holes were forming in his bones, and he was diagnosed with radium poisoning.

Subsequently, Byers had surgery to remove large parts of his diseased upper and lower jaw. However, his body continued to deteriorate rapidly. His appearance was horrifying, especially given his relative youth at age 50.

Following an investigation into Byers’ illness in 1931, the FTC intervened. The agency ordered Bailey’s company to stop claiming Radithor was safe or that it could make people healthier. That was effectively the end for the company.

In 1932, Byers died after 18 months of acute suffering. He was alert and aware almost until his death. The results of his autopsy were on the front page of the New York Times, with a headline announcing he’d died of radium poisoning.

Byers’ death put an end to patent medicines containing radium. Public health officials quickly removed them from the marketplace. Frightened consumers disposed of their remaining supplies. Now, it might seem obvious that Radithor was never safe to drink. However, for ordinary people in the 1920s, it was as accessible as anything else you could find on the drugstore shelf.

Lyn Burke has been writing and editing for over 15 years, and she particularly enjoys creating history and science content. When she’s not writing, she spends time antiquing with her family and walking her two dogs. Lyn is also a hobbyist wool processor who spins wool from her own pampered angora rabbits. 

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